Saturday, September 6, 2008

Partisanship doesn't have to be poisonous

(Originally published 9/6/09)

John McCain accepted the Republican presidential nomination Thursday, delivering a safe, if staid, address to the party faithful convened in Minneapolis.

Pundits were split on the efficacy of the speech, but they agreed on one thing: The partisan tone struck at the Republican convention was over the top.

I don’t understand that analysis, especially since many of these same pundits condemning the GOP’s tone were the same ones who, barely a week ago, were decrying the Democratic Party for not being aggressive enough in attacking Republicans.

I watched about 80 percent of the presentations in prime time over the two weeks. Neither side had any difficulty leveling aggressively partisan charges against the other.

Of course, that didn’t stop the ticket-toppers of both parties from employing the buzz words of bipartisanship, “building coalitions” and “reaching across the aisle.”

But is partisanship necessarily a bad thing?

After all, we expect each party to believe its ideas are the best. Partisanship an inevitable product of our adversarial two-party system. It is much like dissent, which is sacrosanct under our political system.

The problem develops when partisanship and dissent morph into something else, something deeper.

Something uglier.

It happens when protesters, in a frenetic, almost possessed effort to dilute, disparage and diminish the message of their opponents, trample the free speech and expression rights of those opponents. It happens whenever someone receives –- and then forwards -– an e-mail that attacks the character of a person without considering the veracity of the claims contained therein.

John McCain repeatedly contended with the former as he tried on deliver his speech on Thursday. Barack Obama has been constantly victimized by the latter over the past year and a half.

Who determined that it is impossible to agreeably disagree with one’s opponents? Who made the decision that elections are now full-time affairs?

Who decided that partisanship has to be poisonous?

It’s no wonder our governments are failing us. If you don’t ever stop campaigning, you can never start governing.

McCain and Obama will use the next eight weeks to aggressively advance their ideas, as they should. But I’d love to see them demonstrate along the way that political opponents can cooperate on some ideas even while opposing each other on most others.

Public service is one issue where the candidates can start working on that “common ground.”

The Democratic candidates kicked around the idea of compulsory community service in one debate last summer. John McCain built his whole convention –- indeed, his entire candidacy -– around the idea of “serving a cause greater than your own self-interest.”

By virtue of their divergent life experiences, both men are in unique positions to talk about the value of public service and how that service can change America for the better. Surely both men would agree that whatever change needs to come to Washington, much more effective change can be made by individual citizens who mobilize with a determination to make a difference in their communities -– and, by extension, their country.

On Nov. 4, only one man can win the election. But America can be the real victor in the end.

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